Thursday, July 28, 2011

Top 10 Caves in American National Parks (Western): Part 1

Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada
In an effort to beat this current heat wave, it might be a good idea to take up some caving this summer! Caves almost always at a constant, cool temperature throughout the year- even in the summer! But beyond cooling off, caves are one of the most protected natural feature in America. Every cave in the country is protected by law and most are preserved by some type of National or State Park.

This list is based on my own experiences as a novice caver and my impressions of topside adventures. For example, I liked Jewel Cave better than Wind Cave in South Dakota. However, I enjoyed the general area around Wind Cave more than Jewel Cave.

So here we go!

#1 Lava Beds National Monument, California

To me, Lava Beds is by far the best place for caving in the West Coast. This is because there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of caving options and you don't have to go on a guided tour! I love that! Additionally, there's a full range of technicality in caving. If you're completely new to caving and want to try it out, there's Indian Wells Cave d This is a lighted and wide cave that introduces you to the concept of a lava tube. There's also a couple other caves which are for the novice caver. Sentinel Cave is another good start. Looking for a bigger challenge? You can try the most difficult cave in the park- the 6,900ft long Catacombs Cave which will really test your grit and subterranean navigation. 

Caving is just one part of this national monument. It also has several great hiking trails and is a highly significant archeological and historical site. You can tour sites of the Modoc Indian War and see the natural fortress known as Captain Jack's Stronghold.

The Parachutes, Lehman Caves, Nevada
 #2 Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada

The Lehman Caves of the Great Basin contain the richest collection of unique geological formations. This is my favorite cave I've ever toured. Pictured above are the famous Parachute Formations which are a type of cave shield. Its difficult to explain, but the formations found in caves can vary from location to location and depending on the rocks. The Lehman Caves are endowed with rare formations such as "cave shields", "cave bacon" and massive stalagmites. Although you must go on a guided tour, the group sizes are usually small and the rangers take you deep into the caverns. Cave Tours are offered daily for $8 to $10 dollars depending on which tour you take.

Adventures beyond caving are equally enchanting. Great Basin National Park is a park I just can never get enough of. Its a real wilderness, quite unlike the highly commercialized national parks you might be more used to. Wheeler Peak, the tallest mountain fully in Nevada can be climbed and you can see Nevada's only glacier. Lastly, you can see ancient bristlecone pine trees, the oldest living organisms. Of course, you could always do the nearby Roadtrip of the Loneliest Highway in America!

#3 Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

I toured both Wind Cave and Jewel Cave back to back when I was in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Both caves are incredible formations. Jewel Cave and Wind Cave are the 2nd and 4th longest caves in the world, respectively. What's fascinating to learn is that Jewel Cave is contained within 3 square miles and Wind Cave is contained within 1 square mile! How long is wind cave? 130 miles... and counting! Scientists estimate that only 5-10% of the cave has been explored! The National Park service does offer several cave tours which range from simple, short walks to the wild cave tour. A hardcore spelunker might not like it, but the wild cave tour does involve some legitimate caving techniques! Old Timey Candlelight Tours can also offer a thrill!

The Cave is great but if that's the only thing you do, you're missing out on the full experience. Wind Cave is actually a large national park that contains 30 miles of hiking trails. I saw a substantial amount of wildlife in the park- bison herds, white tale deer, elk, and wild turkeys! The prairies and Black Hills of South Dakota are as natural and unspoiled as land can be.

(wish I had a better picture!)
#4 Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota
Jewel Cave is the bigger brother of Wind Cave and is a far less toured As a cave in itself, I would say that Jewel Cave was more fascinating than Wind Cave. There was more variety of formations and a lot less people on the tours. The tours showcase a good portion of the cave but it would take months, even years to explore all 151 miles that are currently discovered! Again, scientists estimate that only 2-5% of the cave has been mapped! Imagine how large it would be if we knew everything about it! Imagine what its like to discover a new section of the cave never seen  by human eyes before! The Discovery Tour is a great and shorter introductory caving tour if you're somewhat nervous about being down in a cave. The Scenic Tour is much more bold and its a longer tour. Lots of exploration and stair stepping! Lastly, there's the Wild Caving Tour which is another legitimate spelunking trip led by the National Park Rangers.

Surface activities are more limited in the National Monument. There are two hiking trails through the small canyons contained in the park. Its a pretty area, but I'd recommend hiking around the prairies of Wind Cave over Jewel Cave.

Jewel Cave or Wind Cave? Which is better? Herein lies the great question of the Black Hills! I actually get this question pretty frequently and it depends on your tastes. I would rate the caving experience of Jewel Cave to be better than Wind Cave; more variety of formations and the guided tour takes you deeper in the cave. I still enjoyed the tour of Wind Cave however! Plus, as a national park, the hiking trails and surface activities are unique. Its rare that you can see completely natural prairies alongside pine forests in the midwest. You can see Wind Cave and Jewel Cave in a day if you're ambitious enough!
Banana Groves, Oregon Caves
#5 Oregon Caves National Monument, Cave Junction, Oregon

Oregon Caves is located in the thick forests of Southern Oregon almost on the California boarder. This cave is one of the oldest National Monuments in the United States and just celebrated its 100 year anniversary in 2009! The Oregon Caves have some fantastic "banana grove" like formations that reminded me of hanging bats. It is a marble cave which has led to different characteristics than some of the other caves I've mentioned. What I thought was particularly interesting was that 100 years ago, the workers who put in the stairs and trails actually signed their names one the cave. The signatures have become permanently crystallized over time and are now covered in a translucent layer of rock! Talk about leaving your mark! Of course, this type of behavior is now criminal, but it does allude to the history of the cave! Cave Tours are pretty extensive and cover some significant ground.

The caves are within a thick forest that is similar to the redwood forests of nearby Crescent City and the hiking is pretty decent! In the winter the caves are closed so hiking is the only activity available in the park. The historic Chateau has a frontier look and feel to it and is worth checking out! It is somewhat of a relic from the age before road-trips when people stayed here for longer periods of time.

I hope that gives you a good start! Remember that every one of these parks has options for beginners to advanced cavers! Although most cavers are more fond of the east, the West has some of the most well-preserved and unspoiled caves in the country.

Best Caving in America: Part II

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Double Presidential Traverse: A 21 Summit Challenge

"Double or Nothing!"

"A challenge in which a successful outcome is assure isn't a challenge at all"~ Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer
Somewhere in the part of my mind that just can't get enough suffering and misery comes ideas for grandiose and epic adventures! I suppose this is the same part that got me into ultramarathon running and produced my 6,600 mile road trip. Anyways, somehow I got the idea to do the Double Presidential Traverse in two days.
Background on the Presidential Traverse

Peakbaggers in New England speak of their first time completing the Presidential Traverse with the same fondness that they recount a wedding or birth of a child. Its the ultimate challenge of the White Mountains conquered by the few, the proud, and the insane... and quite possibly stupid. The requirements are- to hike all 7 of the Presidential Mountains in New Hampshire in a day. Its a 19.2 mile (31km) affair with about 9,000ft of elevation. Generally its done end-to-end, North to South. For whatever reason, that just wasn't good enough for me...

One wonderful aspect of the Presidential Traverse is that if 19.2 miles and 7 summits isn't enough pain for you, you can always add more! So, just to make it a full 11 summits, you can climb Mt Webster, Mt Jackson, Mt Franklin, and Mt Clay! 22.4 miles and 10,000ft of elevation gain! (these are the types of things that thru-hikers joke about!)
Just to make it Sufferfest 2011, I decided I would attempt to do the Presidential Traverse twice and climb all the major peaks twice in addition to the minor summits. I call it "The Presidential Yo-Yo".
Crawford Notch
Day 1: Crawford Notch to Madison

I decided to begin at Crawford Notch State Park and begin the ascent towards Mt Webster. It was a brutal climb out of the notch, but I was soon standing atop the summit. There were excellent views of the Crawford Notch that are unsurpassed in the rest of the trip! I climbed back down and a half an hour later was on top of Mt Jackson.

While I was thinking to myself that if I got in a real pinch, I could just stay at one of the Appalachian Trail huts. I mean, its got to be what, 20 bucks to stay there right? Some hikers I met on Jackson let me know that it was 120 DOLLARS to stay a night at the AMC hut! Backpacking ain't what it used to be! Don't get me wrong, the money supports a great cause, but I think the entire cost of my John Muir Trail trip, including permits, food, and campsites was less than $100! I guess I'm just cheap.

Almost the every part of the trail I trod was part of the Appalachian Trail, which made the ordeal a social experience. For starters, nobody acted like I was crazy trying to climb them all... hey, they're thru-hikers! But I met folks from all across America doing the Appalachian Trail. Although they were all doing the same hike, all their stories were different! I was in good company.
Summit of Pierce, with Washington, Monroe and Eisenhower
Sometime around 9AM I finally made it to Mt Pierce, the first of the true Presidentials. The summit view was glorious and daunting- I could see just how far I had to go. An hour later I was on Eisenhower which had a fantastic view. The going was slow, however. It took at least an hour to reach every summit from the previous one. Franklin was a joke- its a simple exposed notch. Monroe and the sub-peak of Monroe were done at a painfully slow pace. What was really frustrating was that you have to descend anywhere from 500-700ft back down to get to the col of the next mountain! Of course, that's all part of the fun! I stopped in to fill my water bottles at the Lake of the Clouds hut after Monroe and charged up Mt Washington.

Mt Washington was well... Mt Washinton. Lots of people.
The journey continues
The climb down Mt Washington offers views of the Great Gulf and disheartening views of the descents and ascents that lay ahead. Mt Clay wasn't too difficult but it's not technically on the 4,000-footer list so it was a futile ascent. Mt Jefferson was by far my favorite mountain. There is a small area of alpine tundra below the summit that is flat and serene. It reminded me of the John Muir Trail. After descending off of Jefferson, I had to make the arduous climb up Mt Adams. 

It was dark by the time I got to the trail up Adams. Not only was it a massive boulder field, it was steep and difficult to follow at night. I confess I nearly lost it climbing Adams. I'd come almost 16 miles and I was dog-tired and frustrated. When I finally summited, it was 9:30 at night and I had an equally challenging descent. It was nightmarishly steep and difficult to follow. Profanities ensued.

I made it down to the Madison hut and decided I had enough for a day and made camp below treeline. I rested well, but a storm blew in at night drenching everything. Fortunately, my pack cover and bivy sack were sufficient.
Mt Madison, halfway through the trip!
Day 2: Once more, with feeling...

I awoke to soreness and the all too familiar swollen and excruciatingly painful ankle. I was born with a short Achilles Tendon in my right foot which becomes ridiculously inflamed on my endurance adventures. Its one of those things that's painful enough to set me back quite a bit at times, but not epic enough for an inspiring story (News article- "Man with shortened Achilles Tendon completes Presidential Traverse! Children everywhere encouraged to believe in their dreams!"

I decided to play it by ear and try ascending Madison. The tightness and swelling tends to wear off with time and after the quick ascent, I was on the downswing of my trip. Not surprisingly, the ascent of Adams was a lot more enjoyable in the daytime!
As I was ascending and descending the peaks I had done yesterday, I had plenty of time to think and try and come up with some kind of ultra-philosophical fodder for the blog so here we go...
I suppose one reason for these crazy trips is I like going places. I like being on the move, seeing things I've never seen and discovering something new. I can't run on a treadmill; I get tired in a couple miles. When I'm on an 10 mile run, the miles just fly by! When I'm climbing, the views often overshadow any kind of soreness or misery involved in a climb. Einstein put it best- "Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving."
Another reason would be that these endurance endeavors have developed a mindset that I'm always preparing for something. Be it a future race or some intangible measure of mental or physical stamina, endurance running is an investment in the future.
There's not much to say about the second round of the Presi Traverse. After summiting Mt Washington for a second time, it was a downhill roller coaster from there. Monroe and Eisenhower were still challenging, but the down climbing was hard on the knees and ankles. I finally summited Mt Pierce right at sunset. It was a great feeling of accomplishment- 21 summits completed in about 32 hours of hiking. Not the fastest time, but still a great accomplishment. Rather than try and bag Jackson and Webster again, I descended down the Crawford Trail to the Notch. This is actually the oldest hiking trail in America- designed in the 1810's. I'm sure that will some day be a jeopardy question and you can thank me!

So the 21 summits, in order are: Mt Webster, Mt Jackson, Mt Pierce, Mt Eisenhower, Mt Franklin, Little Monroe, Mt Monroe, Mt Washington, Mt Clay, Mt Jefferson, Mt Adams, Mt Madison, Mt Adams(2), Mt Jefferson(2), Mt Clay(2), Mt Washington(2), Mt Monroe(2), Little Monroe(2), Mt Franklin(2), Mt Eisenhower(2), Mt Pierce(2).

That's my story! If you feel you don't have enough suffering in your life and want to do the Double Presidential Traverse, feel free to message me about the finer logistics of the trip. I leave you with one last inspiring quote:

"Surfing and climbing are both useless sports. You get to be conquistadors of the useless. You climb to the summit and there is nothing there."~Jeff Johnson

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Carter Dome, South Carter, Middle Carter and Wildcat Mountain, New Hampshire

Bagging more 4,000 Footers in the White Mountains

Every state has its mountain climbing lists. In California, its all about climbing 14ers- mountains with 14,000ft or more of elevation. There's also California's 50 finest which encompasses the 50 most prominent mountains of the state. Colorado has a 14er list as well. Up in the Cascades, its all about mountain prominence. At any rate, the big thing up here in New England is the 4,000 Footers and "New England's 50 Finest". Although considerably shorter and less prominent than mountains out west, its a nice list of adventures and even the low White Mountains of New Hampshire can provide enough challenges for this Western boy.
I lost all the pictures on my camera but one!
I'd had a rough week filled with too much studying and a couple of disappointments. Basically, I just had to get away from it all and New Hampshire is the place. "Live Free or Die", the motto of New Hampshire, is something that's always resonated well with me and I'm finding the White Mountains to be a serene and rugged place for some solitude and thought. I set forth at 8:30AM and was in the Whites an hour later!
There are 48 4,000 Footers in New Hampshire, an additional 14 in Maine, and 5 more in Vermont. Also, there's 46 in the Adirondacks of New York. One must be economical if they are serious about climbing all 4,000 Footers within any foreseeable amount of time. This requires multiple summits to be done on single trips which can make a nice day hike into a 14 hour affair! So while I originally planned on only doing Wildcat and Carter Dome, I couldn't resist the allure of bagging two more summits by adding an additional 5 miles to my trek.
The first four miles of the Nineteen Mile up to Carter Notch were a gentle ascent through thick forests. Once I reached the notch, I took a right and headed up the trail to Wildcat Mountain. WHEW! That was a climb! Carter Notch is at an elevation of 3,290ft and Wildcat is at 4,422ft. The trail ascends that in less than a mile!!! Be forewarned, it is a veritable staircase! And I'm no strangers to massive ascents! The view at the top was well worth the climb though! You can see most of the western Whites and all the way into Maine.
Looking towards the general area of the hike
(from another trip)
Well I descended about at slowly as I climbed back to Carter Notch. The trail climbs from Carter Notch to Carter dome about as steeply- from 3,290ft to Carter Dome at 4,832ft in 1.2 miles. The map even said "this section is rough, even by White Mountain standards!" While Wildcat had a beutiful panorama, Carter Dome was just a wooded summit with a cairn marking the summit. On the way to Zeta pass from the Dome, I hit Mt Hight at 4,675ft. Although not a true 4,000 footer, the view was much better than Carter Dome. I descended to Zeta Pass at around 3,900ft.

Here's where I went for broke and did South and Middle Carter. On the map its only another 5 miles of hiking. Of course, 5 miles in the White Mountains might as well be 10 miles anywhere else! The slog up to South Carter from Zeta Pass was another 600ft of gain to 4,420ft. I was sucking wind at this point but hell, why not hit Middle right? After another couple hundred feet of loss and gain, I reached the summit of Middle Carter at 4,600ft.
The descent wasn't too difficult and I even met a Appalachian Trail Hiker! She was hiking from the Deleware Water Gap to Mt Katahdin in Maine. That's probably the most difficult section hike of the trail and she said New Hampshire was really the major test. I hope to someday do the same!

So the overall stats for the trip were:
  • Mileage: About 16 miles
  • Mountains Climbed: Carter Dome: 4,832ft, Wildcat Mountain, 4,422ft, Middle Carter, 4,600ft and South Carter, 4,420ft
  • Time: 8 hours 10 minutes
  • Trailhead Start and End: Nineteen Mile Brook Trailhead, 2.2 miles north of White Mountain Auto Road
  • Best Views: Wildcat Summit and Mt Hight
  • Overall Impression: Insane climbs and rough trails, but a perfect place to get away from the majority of hikers.
I would totally recommend this for a great day hike if you're into the more strenuous trails and bagging 4,000 Footers. If you're a novice hiker or someone who just wants a nice walk in the woods, I would recommend the Flume Trails at Franconia Notch State Park or some of the shorter walks in Crawford Notch State Park.

I've written some other guides and trip reports in the White Mountains. Here they are!

Introduction to New Hampshire: If you're new to New England or the White Mountains, this is my overall impression of the great state of New Hampshire!
Grafton Notch State Park: Here's my guide for climbing Old Speck and Mt Baldpate which are part of the White Mountains in Maine. Very close to Mt Washington in New Hampshire!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Climbing Saddleback Mountain, the Highest Mountain in Orange County and the Santa Ana Mountains

A Guide to Hiking Orange County's Highest Peak, Saddleback Mountain

I'm always amused with the surprise of out-of-towners and locals who never knew that a mile high mountain exists in Orange County. Indeed, the Santa Ana Mountains of Orange County are a rugged and wild range which destroy the stereotype that the O.C. is just a bunch of celebrities and beaches. I love telling the story of how I got caught in an Orange County blizzard on the slopes of Santiago peak, just thirty miles from the ocean!

Having said that, I'd like to provide you with a guide on climbing this rugged mountain!
Santiago Mountain, more commonly referred to as Saddleback Mountian, sits at 5,689ft and is the high point of the Santa Ana Mountains. It is preserved by Cleavland National Forest and there are probably a hundred different ways to get to the summit. I've lost track of how many times I've climbed this mountain and I get requests for information all the time. Despite its prominence, it still remains difficult to get to and relatively uncrowded. The Holy Jim Trail is the most hiked trail up the mountain and even this requires a 5 mile drive down a rough dirt road!

Directions to Santiago Peak Trailhead (Holy Jim Trail)

As mentioned earlier, this is actually a difficult trailhead to access. I'd recommend having 4-wheel drive, but its possible to reach it in a sedan (might take you a while). The trailhead is located in the rural community of Trabuco Canyon California which is out in the sticks. So, from wherever you are, head to Laguna Hills, CA.
Saddleback Mountain, Orange County
From the 5 freeway in Laguna Hills
  • Take the exit for El Toro Rd and head north (towards the mountains)
  • Take El Toro Rd for about 7.0 miles to "Cooks Corner". This is a very conspicuous Biker Bar, you'll see a thousand harleys parked out front
  • Make a right at Cook's Corner for Live Oak Canyon Rd
  • Take Live Oak Canyon Rd for 2.0 miles until you see "Trabuco General Store" Pick up your national forest pass here! You WILL be ticketed without it!
  • Take a Left on the unmarked dirt road just past the general store. This is Trabuco Creek Rd. and it can be rough and washed out in the spring. Drive carefully
  • Drive 4.7 miles on Trabuco Creek Rd until you see the trailhead. The trailhead is just past the unmanned fire lookout.
  • Park in the dirt parking lot.
There should be signs for the Holy Jim Trail at the trailhead. Don't drive any further or the residents will yell at you!

Information about the Holy Jim Trail

This is the standard route up Saddleback Mountain and although you might see people of every shape and size on the trail, it is still a serious mountain. There are two reasons why you should take the Holy Jim Trail seriously. First of all, Santiago Peak is just 30 miles from the ocean making it the first target for any weather systems. Indeed, I have been snowed on while climbing Santiago peak. Snow in orange county?! It sounds crazy but it snows at least once a year on this Orange County mountain. Secondly, this trail climbs over 4,000ft and is 16 miles long. Many a hiker has set off to conquer this peak and been turned around by the trail's endless climbing. Start early in the summer, it can also get hot in the afternoon!
Snow in Orange County on the Holy Jim Trail
As far as trail directions go, the trail is generally well marked and easy to follow. I've been partial to the Franko Map's version of the area- easy to follow and pretty accurate. You can pick up a map of the Santa Ana Mountains and the Holy Jim Trail at that same gas station just before the trail turn-off. You can also follow the descriptive guide on summitpost.

Generally speaking, shade parts on the trail are few and far between. Don't forget your hat and sunscreen.

Mountain Biking Santiago Peak (Saddleback Peak)

If you're really up for a challenge, you can take this mountain on fat tires. Again, there are a hundred different ways to make it up the mountain and I've done several different variations. The Holy Jim Trail can be mountain biked but I would give it a moderate to difficult technicality rating. On a bike, we're talking lots of switchbacks, very steep sections and a very narrow single-track. Other trails up the mountain are poorly maintained and difficult to negotiate on a bike.
Mountain Biking Santiago Canyon Trail
Santiago Canyon Trail (Sometimes referred to as the Joplin Trail on some Maps)

This is another trail up Saddleback Peak that is used by Mountain Bikers. The advantage of this trail is that it is much less crowded and traveled. The first 8 miles of the trail is a well marked, dirt single track which will take you to "Old Camp". From here the trail gets rough with loose rocks and dirt. The last 2 miles up to the Main Divide Trail will probably take you as long as the first 8. Once on the Main Divide Trail, you can go left to climb Modjeska Peak (Second highest in Orange County) or right to climb Santiago Mountain. There are no reliable water sources on this trail, bring plenty!
The summit of Saddleback Mountain!
To get to the trailhead for the Santiago Canyon Trailhead, follow the directions to Cook's Corner and veer left. In about a mile, you'll come to the top of a hill and notice a little dirt turnout.

If you have a good area map of the Santa Ana Mountains, you can see that the possibilities are endless in getting up the mountain. There are several peaks that are also worth climbing in this small range. Modjeska Peak is a close second to Santiago Peak's height and its the other part of the "Saddleback".

Orange County is a county full of crazy adventures! Check out some of my other guides-

Crystal Cove State Park, Laguna Beach- Wildlife Viewing, Mountain Biking and Day Hiking
Aliso Woods Wilderness- One of Orange County's Premiere Mountain Biking Destinations!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Beyond Bar Harbor: The Best Seaside Villages, Island Retreats, and Lobster Towns of Maine

After traveling almost 200 miles along the coast of Maine by kayak and even more by car and foot, I believe I've discovered some of Maine's best small seaside villages. Here's my take on weekends, vacations, or just a pleasant day out to a REAL lobstertown!
Stonington, Maine
Alright so I don't write for Downeast Magazine and I'm not a native Mainer but I've been to almost every little town on the Maine coast from York to Lubec. I've done enough traveling to know the difference between what's authentic and what's just a plain tourist trap. Best of all, I've kayaked almost 200 miles of the Maine coast so I think I have a valid opinion when it comes to deciphering the true Maine towns worth visiting!

I should preface my guide by saying that these towns are NOT DISNEYLAND! If you're looking for some place flashy, easy and full of cars and people, well... there's a hundred other places to go for that. These towns are small, off the beaten path and for those looking for a pleasant place to relax for a day or weekend. Most of them are quiet, rustic, historical and small which is appealing to the adventure traveler. In leaving the conveniences and amenities of modern living behind, I hope you can discover a slower, gentler, and stressless way of life on Maine's coast.

This is my list of the best small towns in Maine that are worth a day trip or an extended stay. I would like to note that this is A list, not THE list. But if you're looking for something less touristed than Bar Harbor, might I recommend the following...
Where the true lobstah-men roam
#1 Stonington, Maine (Downeast)

God, I love Stonington! I've kayaked in an out of here several times and I've enjoyed this place more than any other Maine town. Although its easily accessed by state highways, Stonington is located on Deer Island and as such, you are on "Island Time". Island Time is the nebulous way of looking at time; the only important times are sunrise and sunset. Nothing in Stonington open or closes with any real predictability- a beautiful thing.

I had one unscripted conversation which put Stonington in perspective. Just before a kayak trip, I parked my car and asked one of the store owners if it was okay to park on the street for a couple of days. She replied, "Well... we don't have cops and we don't have tickets. Park wherever you want." The way life should be!
Paddle to one of the hundreds of islands near Stonington
This is an excellent town to come and simply relax by the ocean! I'd recommend doing low budget things like waking up early and just watching and listening to the lobstermen ready their boats. Or you could grab some lunch at one of the couple of hotels on the shore! Also, Isle au Haut is accessible through a ferry that leaves from Stonington. This in itself is an excellent day trip and a chance to see the wild side of Acadia National Park! Lastly, I'd highly recommend paddling out to one of the hundreds of islands nearby Stonington. Most are publically accessible and great places to have a picnic. Again, its a wonderful place for a low-budget weekend getaway or adventure travel!
Easternmost Town in America
#2 Lubec, Maine (The most Downeast town in Maine)
(pronounced Lou-beck)

Ahhhh, Lubec! This tiny lobster town has the honor of being America's Easternmost Town! I've found that even native Mainers have never heard of it despite its significance. If I could, I would proclaim Lubec as "America's Greatest Sunrise". As the easternmost town, it is the first place in America to see the sunrise. I met some native Lubecers (Lou-beck-ah's!) who remarked that they have the duty of "propin' up the sun ev'ry mornin'!" If you want to catch that glorious sunrise, head out to West Quoddy Head State Park!
Best sunrise in the nation!
There's a couple other things you can't miss in Lubec. Although technically in Canada, Roosevelt Campobello International Park is a must-see. Make sure you bring your passport because its technically in New Brunswick. I say technically because this park is managed by both the US National Parks System and Parks Canada. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spent many a summer on this picturesque island and many early 20th century houses are preserved.. It is both a good historical park and a hiking park. I loved simply walking along the shores of the Bay of Fundy which has the largest tidal range in the world. Oh and of course, don't forget to eat a lobster back in Lubec; aint no fresher lobster!
Welcome to the island town of Vinalhaven!
#3 Vinalhaven, Maine (Penobscot Bay)

This is a true island town and can only be accessed by boat! Although its on an island, it is large enough to bring a bike and explore the interior. Like Stonington, Vinalhaven is primarily a lobster town and it is very enjoyable to simply watch the lobstermen do their work. Also, since it is isolated from the mainland, its not nearly as touristed. Yet there are plenty of basic amenities to make for a weekend getaway.

As a major adventure traveler, I have to recommend spending most of your time outdoors. My favorite activity is of course, kayaking. Vinalhaven is close to many small islands that are within a half a day or full day trip out. Kayaking is perhaps the most authentic experience you can have on Vinalhaven. However, the island is large enough to bike as well! I've never biked it myself, but I hiked around the islands many roads and it is quite hilly. You might want to consider bringing a mountain bike!

Other recommendations... whilst wandering about Vinalhaven I grabbed an excellent cup of coffee at the ARC Cafe which is located just off the main drag on High Street. After fighting the currents for half a day, it was nice to cozy up on a couch and enjoy some coffee! There are some interesting little shops on main street but I would recommend just taking a walk throughout town! Its historical and quintessentially Maine-ish. Don't come expecting Disneyland but come expecting a wonderful place to relax, think and slow life down for a while.

Here's the ferry information. And here's the island's website!
Sunset on North Haven
#4 North Haven, Maine (Penobscot Bay)

Similar but smaller than Vinalhaven, North Haven is just north of Vinalhaven. It has less fame than Vinalhaven but its a unique experience! This town has a year-round population of about 350 people and I imagine that most of them are lobstermen. The nice part of North Haven is that everything is within walking distance of the ferry.
North Haven has the look and feel of a working port
I don't mean to sound repetitive, but wandering around town and the island was my favorite activity! The Maine Islands are similar in ecology but each has its own feel and culture. North Haven is a small but proud community and equally friendly. Although its doesn't have as many services as Vinalhaven, I appreciated that the harbor was a real working harbor. There are shipyards and lobster depots primarily, the tourists come second! Due to its location in the central part of Penobscot Bay, the sunset here was glorious and not to be missed!

I'd recommend making a day trip out of a visit to North Haven. Here's information on the ferry.
Coming in to Isle au Haut
#5 Isle Au Haut, Maine (Acadia National Park)

Just south of Stonington and only accessible by a mail boat, Isle Au Haut is the best and least crowded part of Acadia National Park. Isle au Haut is an island and town and has a significant amount of hiking trails. Isle au Haut is like Mt Desert Island in that it is managed mostly by Acadia National Park and there is a large network of hiking trails. This is the real allure of the island- uninhibited hiking! The people that you meet here are likely to be similar adventurers who want to avoid traffic jams on the trail.

While the other towns I've mentioned are great for a pleasant stay in a local hostel or motel, this island is best enjoyed through some old-fashioned camping! Duck Harbor, the only campsite on the island, is the one campsite on the island. Be aware that the hike from the town of Isle au Haut to Duck Harbor Campground is 4 miles! This could make for a relaxing backpacking trip as there are several other hiking trails on the island.
Mansion on Isle au Haut
Isle au Haut does have an inn and a small general store but most people come for either a camping trip or just the day. This is a lobster-town too, but not as much as Stonington and North Haven. There is also a nearby lighthouse- Robinson Point. This is a pretty lighthouses but it is not publicly accessible. Here is the website for Isle au Haut and information on the ferry and accommodations.

Well I hope this has been a helpful guide to some of the lesser-known island towns and smaller villages of the Maine coast! Happy exploring!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Kayaking from Stonington to Bar Harbor, Maine Island Trail Trip Report

A 90-mile Kayaking Adventure on the Maine Island Trail
At least the first day was nice!
Wow, that was epic... in the truest sense of the word. It was everything an adventure could be and should be. In some ways it was the greatest trip of my life, in other ways it was absolutely miserable and frightening.

A little background... The Maine Island Trial is a kayaking trail that goes from Portland to Manchias, Maine. (Portland, Maine, that is!) Last year I did a 100 mile trip across and around Penobscot Bay which included Isle au Haut, Vinalhaven, North Vinal. That trip was as nice as a trip could ever be: sunny, warm, clear weather and calm seas for 4 days. This trip's goal was to do another 100 mile of the Maine Island Trail from Stonington to Bar Harbor and back. It was quite the opposite of the first.
Incredibly thick fog
Day 1: Calm Winds and Fair Seas

As most of these things go, it started off beautifully. I drove up to Stonington Friday night and stayed the night in my car. I awoke the next day excited and anxious to hit the water! Stonington is a small lobster town located on Deer Isle in Downeast, Maine. Its a perfect place to launch; there's hundreds of islands within close distance of the town and its far enough away from the tourists. As a side note, if I had to pick one Maine town to vacation to for a week, it would be Stonington.

It always takes a while for me to get ready and I set forth at 10:00AM on the first day. Boy was it every beautiful. Coastal Maine is like a northern Caribbean. There are thousands of islands on a jagged coast each inviting exploration and relaxation. The currents were light and I made most of the larger crossing in no time at all. Whats truly wonderful about the Maine coast is that you can island hop as much as you would like- most are state owned or public. I stopped on 4-5 islands the first day; most of the time it was just for the hell of it! Once I stopped and just read my book for an hour. I stopped on another island and drank a beer!
Drinking a beer on some forgotten island
At night I found myself a suitable little slice of paradise on an island no larger than a house; my own private island! Upon this little island I set up a campsite and enjoyed a private sunset over a glassy ocean. I even enjoyed some of Maine's best stargazing on that tiny island. Alas, if only the rest of the trip was as serene!

Day 2: Stormy Weather to Bar Harbor and Back

The next day I awoke to a light fog. It wasn't unmanageable but it did make the going slower. Fortunately it cleared off by 9AM. At this point I began kayaking around Mt Desert Island. This is the main island which Acadia National Park is based on. Its the 6th largest island in the country and is a wonderful place to kayak. I went right under the single bridge that connects Mt Desert Island to the mainland and continued to hug the coast.
A very cliffy section just east of Salsbury Cove
One section that I found particularly delightful was the cliffy section just east of Salsbury Cove. This part had 50ft cliff and sea caves with both trees and houses perched on top! This was similar to the Otter Cliffs on the South Side of Mt Desert Island but much more tucked away. The water was clear too, I imagine there's some good diving to be had here.

Unfortunantely after I rounded that last cape on my way to Bar Harbor, the wind and waves began to pick up. Kayaking in the wind is like swimming in quicksand. You know you're going somewhere but its hard to tell, especially on the ocean. That was disheartening but I made it into Bar Harbor.

As opposed to the quintessentially Maine-ish towns of Vinalhaven, North Haven, Stonington and Isle au Haut, Bar Harbor was heavily touristed and had the feeling of staleness. I walked into town to resupply on food and it was positively jarring. One moment I'm paddling the free and unspoiled coastal wilderness and the next I'm fighting my way through thousands of ill-prepared tourists complaining about the high price of souvenirs. It was like eating a expertly prepared fillet Mignon for lunch and then going to McDonalds for dinner. I don't mean to complain; Bar Harbor is probably a wonderful place for most but it certainly doesn't suit my tastes! I was happy to leave.

The currents still plagued me but I decided to head back the way I came and enjoy riding the tide for a while. I only had enough time kayak back to the original island I stayed on the first night.
Kayaking in Fog....
Day 3: Doldrums

I hate fog.

I would take 7 days of rain over 1 day of fog. I awoke on the 4th of July to the worst fog I've ever been in. Thinking it would clear off by 9AM again I stayed on my little island until then. It never cleared.... It just hemmed me in. It was imprisoning.

Complaining about it wasn't going to get me closer to Stonington so I set forth into the fog. I had to study my charts like I was preparing for the test of my life. When your on the ocean and on a coast as variable as Maine's, the slightest miscalculation will render you completely lost. My refusal to rely on a GPS has produced good skills with a compass and map though. It was slow, but at least I knew where I was going.
This was my view for most of the 4th of July
I think the one thing that separates so-called "Adventure Sports" from regular sports is the complete lack of control over most environmental factors. In a basketball court, the environment is tightly controlled, the only variable is the players. The environment in football and baseball the environment can be controlled to an extent... in mountaineering and long-distance kayaking it is not. There's no thermostat on a mountain nor a humidity controller on the ocean.

This is the terrible and wonderful thing about mountaineering and long distance kayaking, the two sports I am most fond of. Most of us like to think we're in control of everything in our lives, myself included. Truthfully, we are in conrol of very little.
Strange sights
The crossing of Blue Hill Bay was the most treacherous crossing of the trip. This is the bay that separates the huge Mt Desert Island from the mainland. Its deep, wide and a lot of water moves through there during the tides. At one point there was a break in the fog and I went for it... only to be turned back 1/3rd of the way through when the fog rolled back in. Twenty minutes later the fog cleared just enough to make it halfway. Once again, the fog came back and I was forced to do 2 nautical miles of kayaking completely blind. That was frightening and disorienting. Its hard to, well, trust your life to a 10$ compass. Nevertheless, it was worth its weight in gold and got me safely across.

Fourth of July night was a miserable night for me. I slept on a beach and could hear the jubilee of fireworks and celebrations off in the distance while I was essentially stranded in fog and rain. The mosquitoes and sand flees were relentless.
Day 4: Back to Stonington

The day started off again with more heavy, thick fog. Once again I was put in the precarious situation of making blind crossings. I was more confident now and thankfully, the fog began to clear after 9AM. I was back to happily kayaking along a beautiful coast! The final crossings were not nearly as stressful and I was able to make it back to Stonington safely and in one piece.
Back to calm winds and flowing seas
Overall, I believe my abilites as a man-powered mariner have improved. I gained more confidence in my navigational skills and did pretty well in handling the fog. The Maine Island Trail is still a favorite kayaking destination of mine and I plan on returning. However the ocean taught me some harsh realities that I will not forget. If you plan on kayaking the Maine Island Trail, hope for the best and plan for the worst.

After packing up my car and kayak I instinctively plugged my home address into the GPS. It was so simple, I laughed.